The protests in Turkey have dominated international media coverage for several weeks now. Starting with a local protest over plans to bulldoze a park to make way for a shopping mall, overly harsh policing caused the unrest to spread. The backlash has spread across the country, with people from different socio-economic groups and different areas coming out to protest. From the specific issue of green public spaces, the protesters' concerns have broadened to include freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and the move towards authoritarianism and away from secular democracy.
Throughout all this, the role of the media has been a central point of debate. In the early days of the protests, Turkish TV channels ignored what was going on. One screened a documentary about penguins, which has become almost a trope in the on-going protests. Demonstrators claim it was evidence of the Turkish media's self-censorship. The role of the international media has also been debated, with many saying that the huge international scrutiny threw Prime Minister Recep Tayyoip Erdogan off course. He has blamed "outside forces" for the recent unrest, clearly referring not just to the media but to foreign states, many of which have condemned his handling of events. Essam el-Erian, vice-chair of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, has taken to Twitter to express outrage at the media treatment of the protests. In particular, he criticised the Economist's latest cover, which portrays Erdogan as a sultan, adding that Arab media that "detest the revolution" have joined western media in an anti-Erdogan campaign. "As an Islamic nation we will triumph over the vultures of defeat'," he tweeted. A blog over at Muslim Matters outlines "seven reasons why you should support Erdogan and not the protesters".
Much of the criticism of the international (meaning both Arab and western) media coverage centres on several points. Firstly, that what is happening in Turkey is being inaccurately portrayed as a new Arab Spring. Secondly, that the substantial portion of the public that supports Erdogan is being ignored. Thirdly, that Erdogan has done a huge amount for Turkey.
There are several issues at stake here. Taken as a whole, there are nearly always flaws with media reporting of a big foreign event. The media has a habit of sticking to set narratives and reporting new events by squeezing them into these narratives. Hence it is impossible to report on Pakistan without framing the story with terrorism and bombs, however irrelevant this might be. At times, this can lead to serious misrepresentation. When the Rwandan genocide broke out in 1994, the international media – used to stories about African refugees – and was slow to get a handle on what was really happening. Indeed, it was when many of those who had committed the massacres had been forced into camps that the international media began reporting on it, as this was a narrative they could understand. It also happened to be the wrong narrative for the situation. When it comes to Middle Eastern protests, there is a clear, and very recent, precedent: the Arab Spring. It is certainly not fair to compare the Turkish government to the discredited dictators who were ousted in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. A recent poll found that Erdogan still enjoys the support of 53.5 per cent of the public. He has presided over a period of huge growth for Turkey. His decade in power has seen the country become a serious global player and a beacon for other Muslim majority countries.
However, while comparisons to the Arab Spring may be overblown, it is equally damaging to say, as many have, "Erdogan has done good things, therefore the protests should not be reported on", or "therefore he is beyond criticism". The most nuanced coverage, in both Arab and western media, has acknowledged the good things Erdogan has done in power while simultaneously noting that he has flaws – including an increasingly authoritarian approach – and that there is genuine discontent in some sections of Turkish society. The Economist cover, which the Muslim Brotherhood's vice-chair took umbrage with, is insensitive and plays on stereotyped images of Turkey. On the other hand, the feature inside the magazine dedicates a substantial amount of space to the good things Erdogan has done for Turkey's economy and world standing. International media outlets may have jumped on the story of the protests, but they have not totally ignored the other side. Sunday's pro-Erdogan demonstration has been covered in Haaretz, while the statistic about continued support for the Prime Minister which I cited earlier was drawn from a Washington Post report.
Over at Al-Monitor, Semih Idiz argues against the idea that "outside interests" have contributed to the unrest, or that there is a conspiracy to undermine Turkey: "Those pursuing this line of thought fail to answer a simple question, though. Why should countries whose companies are investing billions of dollars in Turkey try and undermine the Turkish economy, especially at a time of recession for the international economy, when Turkey is providing lucrative investment opportunities?"
It is a valid point. This is not to say that the coverage of the protests – by western, Arab, or Turkish media – has been perfect. It certainly hasn't. It is not unjustified that Turkey's foreign minister was defensive about the European Union's condemnation of the government response, saying that Turkey is an advanced democracy that doesn't need this advice and its "tone of superiority." Yet too often, critique of media bias loses nuance, and appears to suggest that the media shouldn't cover certain events at all. Turkey is a regional power and beacon of stability in an area which has seen substantial unrest recently. It should not be surprising that these protests have made international headlines. Undoubtedly, different media outlets have their own agendas. But overlooking or downplaying a big protest movement would be equally, if not more, of an ideological statement.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.